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'Ratatouille' director brings flavor to film

EntertainmentPixar Animation StudiosMoviesAnimation (genre)Food Network (tv network)TelevisionBrad Bird

Funny thing about the best-animated-film Oscar that Brad Bird won for directing Pixar's monster hit, The Incredibles, back in 2005. It became a burden, pretty much the instant he won it.

"You get it, but if you look at it too much, it becomes this weight. 'Now what'll I do?' "

He put the Oscar away. He made plans to shoot a live-action film as his follow-up, a way to escape the expectations of his next film. But that "burden" kicked back in. Bird, 49, had become Pixar's go-to guy. And the Pixar braintrust wanted him to make Ratatouille.

"Two days into my vacation after Incredibles, they come to me and say, 'Take this over,' " Bird says. Director Jan Pinkava (Geri's Game) had been working on the film for Pixar, but it wasn't working. "The idea was good," Bird says. "They'd been developing it for years, and they didn't feel the story was coalescing. John Lasseter, Steve Jobs and Ed Catmull [the founders of Pixar] asked me to rewrite it and make it work."

Bird, good soldier that he is, agreed to warm up Ratatouille. The director of Iron Giant and Incredibles doesn't think of himself as exclusively an animation director. And he bristles (in a nice way) at the idea that he's making movies "for kids." Ratatouille, about a rat who rises above his circumstances to become a great French chef, seemed "adult," and right up his alley.

"I worked on The Simpsons just as a way of declaring that I wanted to work in animation that is patently not for children," he says. "Younger children, under 7, probably shouldn't have gone to The Incredibles. Parents know their kids better than I do, but it's OK if they want to wait to let them see it.

"As a kid, I liked stuff that was smarter, that I had to stretch a bit to 'get.' Ratatouille is that kind of movie, smart. A little over kids' heads."

Bird described Ratatouille as being like a college-directing exercise, "where you're assigned this premise, these character types. 'This is your cast. You have two sets, a kitchen and a dining room. You have to use those. But otherwise, you can add characters, add sets and make the movie. Go!' "

It was "completely frightening. But all of the time for ruminating about this idea had been used up in the previous five years of production. A rush. So that gave the film spontaneity, I hope."

He may not be hoping in vain. He has won not only Pixar's obligatory annual endorsement from Time magazine, but raves from others -- "It is the first great American animation for adults first," David Poland says on influential film site thehotbutton.com.

That's the sort of praise you might expect for a movie that would be right at home on The Food Network. But that network and Ratatouille aren't just for foodies and grownups, Bird insists.

"One of the problems I thought the film had when I took it over was that they'd left out all this research they'd done on cooking, with the idea that a general audience would find cooking 'dull,' " Bird says. "I find that world fascinating, and I wanted us to get into that more.

"And I have to say my young sons were entranced by Food Network before me. They got me interested. There is a joy in what they do in those cooking shows, and that joy becomes magnetic. That's what this movie is about."

rmoore@orlandosentinel.com

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